Category Archives: Write Better Fiction

Jeanne Mackin: Characters, Setting, and a Problem to be Solved

In this post, Jeanne Mackin shares why she prefers writing historical fiction, how research guides her writing process, what her best piece of writing advice is, and more!

Jeanne Mackin is the author of acclaimed novels about ground-breaking, fascinating women whose lives intertwine with the political and cultural events of their times. Her novels have ranged from the salons of pre-revolutionary France to the cafes and conspiracies of France between the world wars. 

Jeanne Mackin (Photo credit Neil Sjoblom)

Her most recent novel, The Last Collection, based on the intense rivalry between Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli, takes the reader into a world of Parisian haute couture and dangerous politics just before World War II. She has also won awards for journalism and taught writing. She lives with her husband in the Finger Lakes area of New York State.

(21 authors share one piece of advice for writers.)

In this post, Jeanne Mackin shares why she prefers writing historical fiction, how research guides her writing process, what her best piece of writing advice is, and more!

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Whether history is a backdrop to your story or the focus of the story itself, this workshop will provide you with the tools to find the facts you need, organize the data in a functional manner, and merge that data seamlessly into your novel. You'll discover the appropriate level of historical data to include as a function of a particular writing goal, learn the definition of historical markers and how and where to unearth them, and uncover the tools to integrate history, research, and the fiction plot arc.

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Name: Jeanne Mackin
Literary agent: Kevan Lyon of Marsal Lyon Literary Agency
Book title: The Last Collection—A Novel of Elsa Schiaparelli and Coco Chanel
Publisher: Berkley
Release date: August 11, 2020
Genre: Historical Fiction
Previous titles: A Lady of Good Family; The Beautiful American; The Sweet By and By; Dreams of Empire; The Queen's War; The Frenchwoman

Elevator pitch for the book: An American woman becomes entangled in the intense rivalry between iconic fashion designers Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli, just as Paris prepares for the Nazi invasion of World War II.

What prompted you to write this book?

Stories about powerful women fascinate me. And in Paris, in the years between the world wars, few people were as powerful, or as rich, as Coco Chanel. When the upstart Elsa Schiaparelli from Rome entered the world of Paris fashion and threatened to usurp Coco from her throne as queen of couture, the rivalry was intense, and almost fatal. 

The true histories of these two women, and the Parisian setting, were irresistible to me. As I researched and saw how closely fashion and politics were connected I grew ever more intrigued.

How long did it take to go from idea to publication?

It takes me several years to complete a novel, largely because of the amount of research I do. And yes, ideas always change during the actual writing process. I'd be worried if they didn't! The novel writing process, for me, begins with characters and a setting, and a problem to be solved, and goes from there. 

I often explore several solutions before I discover the one I want to stay with, to work with. Balance has to be constantly fine tuned. There has to be a love story—think of a single novel that isn't in some way, about love—but it has to be balanced with the historical plotting. 

(On writing better historical fiction.)

What most changed for me in this novel was how to solve the problem of my main character's grief. At the opening of this novel, Lily Sutter is a young American widow who must learn to live again—to heal her sorrow and feel the emotions of the living, all the joy and pain and pleasure and worry that life involves. She must abandon the grey numbness that has overtaken her. Her complex friendships with Coco and Elsa begin that process, but the ultimate solution, when it appeared on the page, surprised me.

Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?

I was surprised, and reminded to be surprised, once again, by the brilliance of the editors and copy editors who are at Berkley. Writers often see what they think is on the page, what they meant to be put on the page…but often what has been typed in is not quite the same thing. And, when dealing with the historical facts of several real characters and weaving them in and out of the lives of fictional characters, as I like to do, anomalies can appear, as well as out and out mistakes. The editing and copy editing process polishes the work and helps make it the book the writer wants it to be.

Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?

The research always leads to surprises. It's one of the many reasons I write historical fiction. I want to learn about the world that came before me. It helps me understand where the world is now. I also like to swim against the tide, as it were: Take a historical meme and relearn it, rework it. 

This novel gifted me with two important lessons: Fashion is not trivial. It reflects its own historical moments and philosophies and attitudes. When we decide to wear a specific piece of clothing or style, we are making a statement that goes far beyond fashion and says things about ourselves and our beliefs and worldview.

(10 questions you need to ask your characters.)

A specific fact that startled me during this research was that German prisoners of war were housed in this country, as well as in England. And those POW camps in this country had special sections for German deserters, men forced into the military who did not agree with Hitler, did not want to fight for him and his evil.

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

The same lesson I hope they take away from all of my novels. That glorious John Dunne poem: "No man is an island, entire of itself, every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main." 

We are all connected and history shows us over and over that if we harm others that harm comes back to us, one way or another. And on a lighter note, Elsa Schiaparelli, in her autobiography Shocking Life, made a list of 12 commandments for women, and this is my favorite: "Ninety per cent (of women) are afraid of being conspicuous and of what people will say. So they buy a grey suit. They should dare to be different."

If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?

Give yourself permission to dream! 

Each day when you begin your work remind yourself that you are engaging in a creative process. This is the time to experiment, to try various "what if" situations and imagine those voices, the dialogues between characters. When things happen that you didn't plan, when characters surprise you, that often means the creative process is now in control…and that's good.

Compliment vs. Complement vs. Supplement (Grammar Rules)

Learn when to use compliment vs. complement vs. supplement with Grammar Rules from the Writer's Digest editors, including a few examples of correct usages.

This week's post is aimed at a problem (one of many) I see on social media quite a bit. In speech, compliment and complement could be swapped and many wouldn't even bat an eye, but it's different in writing. Meanwhile, complement and supplement can easily be mistaken as the same thing when there's a slight difference between the two.

(Grammar rules for writers.)

So in this post, let's untangle compliment, complement, and supplement.

Compliment vs. Complement vs. Supplement

Compliment can be used as a noun or verb. As a noun, compliment is an expression of esteem, acclaim, or admiration. For instance, I could pay someone a compliment on their "beautiful new haircut" or "excellent usage of grammar." As a verb, it just means to pay a compliment.

Complement is something that completes another thing or set of things. It's used in math and phrasing. But people can be complementary to each other as well. The cliche of the "good cop/bad cop" routine in interrogations is an instance of two people complementing each other. Also, the institution of marriage is meant to signify the union of two people who complement each other in love and life.

Supplement seems a lot like complement in that it can help complete something, but it's most commonly used to make an addition to something. A good example is if you do supplemental reading for a class. It doesn't complete the reading for the class, but it does add context to the required reading.

Make sense?

Here are a few examples:

Correct: When I saw my neighbor at the store, I paid a compliment on his nice lawn.
Incorrect: When I saw my neighbor at the store, I paid a complement on his nice lawn.
Incorrect: When I saw my neighbor at the store, I paid a supplement on his nice lawn.

Correct: We have a full complement of strategies to combat anxiety.
Incorrect: We have a full compliment of strategies to combat anxiety.
Incorrect: We have a full supplement of strategies to combat anxiety.

Correct: Supplement your running with pushups and crunches to handle hills better.
Incorrect: Compliment your running with pushups and crunches to handle hills better.
Incorrect: Complement your running with pushups and crunches to handle hills better.

Correct (using all): The program supplement paid a high compliment to the way the two singers complement each other.

A good way to keep these straight is to remember that complement with an "e" completes things, supplement is something added to, and compliment with an "i" is just something nice to say.

*****

No matter what type of writing you do, mastering the fundamentals of grammar and mechanics is an important first step to having a successful writing career.

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How to Mine the Facets of Premise for Story Gold

In this article from the March 2020 issue of Writer's Digest, Larry Brooks explains the 8 facets that make up the premise of a winning story.

In a business in which irony is a useful tool, it is perhaps unsettling to realize that the term premise—unarguably one of the fundamental elements of storytelling—is so frequently misunderstood and misused within the universal writing conversation. It is often contextually abused by authors, agents, and even editors and reviewers, who refer to everything from story ideas to theme to plot slugline—even character arc—as premise, when in fact they are referring to those subsets specifically. None of which actually is, when regarded alone, an actual premise at all.

This imprecision is fine if writing conference conversations and online forums were all that matter. But when it absolutely does matter—as part of a pitch, in a query letter, and especially in the quiet of our writing space when we are alone with the blank page—we benefit greatly when we are more fully enlightened. The goal is to become proficient practitioners of premise, which by definition demands that we understand what the term fully asks of us at an advanced level. The lack of a fully informed premise resides at the heart of most under-performing stories and the rejections they elicit, just as a compelling rendering of premise is what fuels stories that end up becoming bestsellers and beloved word-of-mouth titles.

The most important aspect of story development within any process is the art of evolving our story ideas and themes into fully functioning, compelling dramatic premises. Instinct may ultimately get you there, but a clear checklist will make it happen more consistently.

It Is Easy to Fall into a Trap of Our Own Making

The trap snaps shut when your story idea, and the first visions of a story stemming from it, end up being all that makes it to the page. For example, when someone says their premise is “a story about two sisters growing up in rural Iowa during the Depression,” a long list of potential scenes and episodes immediately comes to mind. But until that vision coalesces into a central dramatic arc, flanked on either side with a compelling setup and a satisfying resolution to the driving hero’s need and resultant quest, in the presence of significant stakes and dramatic pressure emanating from an antagonistic source, the story remains at risk of leaving much of the originating idea’s promise on the table, unseized and unattended.

Experienced authors instinctually apply the criteria for premise to begin either planning or drafting, or both, using specific ideas or targeted goals as a lane for the emerging draft. With an awareness of the criteria for premise, the draft becomes a value-adding process rather than a continuing search for the core story itself, which is where so many new authors ending up settling for too little, too soon in the process.

There Are Eight Specific Facets That Comprise a Complete Premise

Certainly there are more beats and nuances to a complete story, but it isn’t functionally complete—and likely, not competitive in the marketplace—until these eight facets are in place. A complete premise is the integration of character and dramatic tension, within the proposition of a dramatic story arc, which is what the eight points of premise seek to achieve.

It is likely that your original story idea is attached to one of these eight criteria. If organic story development is your process—discovering the larger story as you move deeper into your drafts—the criteria are no different for you than for an ardent story planner or outliner who nails them down prior to drafting. At the end of the day, the reader won’t know or care about your process, only the means and efficacy with which you’ve engineered these criteria into your narrative.

Either way, this is what you need to envision before the story will work:

Premise criteria #1: We meet the protagonist (hero), whom, after being introduced to the reader within a forthcoming story framework (setting, culture, etc.), we will root for on a specific quest in pursuit of a goal. While the protagonist may be embroiled in a problem when we meet her, that problem isn’t fully the core story proposition that will become the narrative spine of the novel’s exposition. Something new and bigger awaits right around the corner, after we’ve come to know and care about this character.

Premise criteria #2: Something happens that changes everything. This critical moment launches the core dramatic arc of the story—it could be argued that this is the most important moment in the novel—giving your hero a problem to solve along a path of response. It’s called the first plot point, as well as other nomenclature within the writing conversation. But whatever you call it, it is a non-negotiable story beat that is best placed with specificity within an awareness of structure.

Premise criteria #3: The hero is compelled to respond to and engage with that problem or need—often running from a threat toward safety, or at least seeking more information—thus fully launching the hero’s story journey, going deeper into its dramatic darkness.

Premise criteria #4: There are stakes in play, put in place in the prior set-up scenes, which pose an urgent win-or-lose pressure and threat.

Premise criteria #5: Something opposes the hero on this quest (a villain or force), creating conflict and dramatic tension. This, too, was likely glimpsed in the opening scenes via foreshadowing, but now functions as the source of drama and conflict within the story, both of which are essential criteria for efficacy.

Premise criteria #6: The story escalates and twists, as do the stakes and the level of intensity, frustration, need, threat, and urgency on both sides. (This simple bullet embraces the entire complexity of the story’s ultimate structure.)

Premise criteria #7: The hero’s state of play elevates as contextually defined by structural flow, leading to a final confrontation that pays off everything the reader has been asked to consider and root for thus far.

Premise criteria #8: The story is resolved, primarily at the hero’s hands, moving the character back into her life, perhaps in an altered form, or not, which could involve dealing with the consequences of the story just told, because things may be different now.

If you are writing a series, take note: All of these criteria apply to each book in your series, including the resolution of the core dramatic arc. You also need a macro-arc for the series strategy, which leverages the ending of each book as a means to propel the reader forward to the next novel.

When Process Is the Problem

An understanding of premise at a deeper level is the empowering force within any writing process. Too many authors begin writing an incomplete story, often unwittingly, because they don’t know what constitutes wholeness, while at the same time rationalizing that this is how it’s done. Too many of those writers end up not actually finishing the draft, at least to the point of intended and necessary efficacy. Without the long game of the story being somewhat clear, writers are tempted to settle for a first-choice option for a given scene or story point. Or they move organically from scene to scene in a way that made total sense at the time, some of which could be improved upon, or some of which you might be stuck with unless you’re willing to rewrite the whole thing.

That difference—optimal versus settling for the first or most obvious solution—is the stuff bestsellers are made of. And when it happens, premise is the reason why. WD

Part of this article has been culled from Larry Brooks’s new writing book, Great Stories Don’t Write Themselves: Criteria-Driven Strategies for More Effective Fiction, published in October 2019 by WD Books. 

Snag your copy of Great Stories Don't Write Themselves, which has won two awards: A 2020 International Book Award for Best Business (Writing/Publishing) and a 2020 Next Generation Indie Book Award for best writing/publishing.

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Why I Write Jewish Historical Fiction

Novelist Michelle Cameron explain why she's driven to write Jewish historical fiction and why it's not about the Holocaust.

I never set out to write Jewish historical fiction. I was brought up in a secular household and, until my family moved to Israel when I was 15, my Jewish roots remained incidental at best.

But I did of course notice that the books I loved – particularly Regency and Victorian literature – didn’t treat the Jews well at all. With rare exceptions – George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda and Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe come immediately to mind – there was no sympathy for the Jewish character. Even Georgette Heyer, the historical romance novelist I loved the most, portrayed Jews as villainous money lenders. There is a searing scene in The Grand Sophie where the heroine bests the sniveling, stereotypical Jewish money lender through her pluck and determination. Not a fun passage for any Jewish reader to read.

Still, it wasn’t what I set out to write. The books I admired with Jewish protagonists were either Biblical – The Red Tent and that ilk – or contemporary, such as the novels of Chaim Potok. When I wrote, as I did in my high school yearbook, that I wanted to become a historical novelist, I wasn’t thinking Jewish. In fact, my first published work was a verse novel set in the Globe Theatre during Shakespeare’s time. Since I never mentioned The Merchant of Venice, In the Shadow of the Globe contained no Jewish references whatsoever.

I believe strongly that my stories find me, not the other way around, and that was certainly the case with The Fruit of Her Hands. I was leafing through a family genealogy chart, compiled by a distant cousin, when I stumbled across a description of the life of my 12th-century rabbi ancestor, Meir of Rothenberg. His story called to me and the resulting novel entered me into the ranks of Jewish historical novelists.

There were not that many of us out there at the time. Happily, this isn’t as true now. I recently took part in one of the Jewish Book Council’s author pitch sessions, in which I was given two whole minutes to present my novel (online this year, of course) to the roughly 120 member organizations across North America. In preparation for the event, I took the time to cull some statistics from the JBC’s 2020 catalogue. I counted 233 total books – fiction, nonfiction, and children’s – of which 34 were categorized as historical novels. Sixteen of these were set during or immediately following World War II, dealing with the Holocaust and its aftermath. The other 18, including my own, ranged through the rest of Jewish history.

I also posted on a couple of Jewish Facebook forums, asking my fellow authors why they write Jewish historical fiction. Being the Jane Austen fan that I am, I was entranced by this response by Mirta Ines Trupp: “Alas, it is a truth universally acknowledged that there are few Jewish characters of worth in historical novels.” Zeeva Bukai echoed that sentiment: “I love the connection between past and present, and the way Jewish identity has remained, but has also altered, shaped by history and events. And I think it's important to see us represented on the page.”

Remembering how the young reader in me was shocked and dismayed by the portrayal of Jews in the books I loved, I wholeheartedly agree: it is important to not only see us represented on the page, but also not portrayed as stereotypes. And once I started writing about the lives of Jews during the Middle Ages, a period not well known, it became a way to reach out, to let people – both Jews and Gentiles – learn more about our history. So many of my readers told me that they had no idea before reading my novel how antisemitism gained strength during the Middle Ages. My current novel, Beyond the Ghetto Gates, is also set in unfamiliar territory, that of the Jewish emancipation from the ghettos in Italy, performed by none other than a young General Bonaparte. Napoleon and the Jews? Who knew?

Another Facebook response resonated with me, this one by Naomi Blass: “Because readers need Jewish fiction that isn’t centered on the Holocaust.” With sincere respect to those writers who give voice to that unforgivable tragedy, I could never write about it myself. Having lost half my mother’s family to its horrors, the Holocaust strikes too close to home. Everything I write about my people is embodied with the sense of “this is my story.” I simply could not face the nightmare of that era for the several years it would take to write a novel set then and there.

I write Jewish historical fiction from a deep sense of my people’s history and culture. Having lived in Israel during high school and university, I have a distinct advantage over other American Jewish authors who attended secular schools: the Israeli curriculum calls for a deep dive into Jewish history, beginning from Biblical times to present day. I will be forever grateful to my high school principal, Dr. Erwin Birnbaum, who brought all those moments of our history to vibrant life.

The fact that I’m not religious bewilders some readers. But the themes in Jewish history that call to me – particularly the tug-of-war between assimilation and maintaining religious tradition, the antisemitism that touches us all, religious or not – distinctly qualify me to tell these stories. And the eras I’ve explored, from the medieval advent of antisemitism to the ideas of the Enlightenment giving the Jews of France and Italy revolutionary new choices, are clearly reflected in our modern lives. One more Facebook response, by Janice Weizman, encapsulates my own feelings about the question brilliantly: “Jewish historical fiction offers writers an amazingly rich resource from which to draw on a seemingly endless range of issues, settings, and dilemmas, all of which resonate with each other, and with our lives as Jews today. The tension between the individual and community, modernism and tradition, faith and skepticism, as well as timeless moral questions, make for narrative potential that feels urgent and relevant.”

So why do I write Jewish historical fiction? These are the stories of my people. My culture. My history. Their issues are the issues I still personally grapple with today. In this era of #ownvoices, I cannot think of anything more important for me to write.

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Charles Soule: On Writing Comics and Novels

Comics writer and novelist Charles Soule shares his process on writing comics and novels, including how they're similar and completely different.

Charles Soule is a novelist and comics writer who has climbed his way to the top of the heap over more than a decade of work. He's written landmark runs with Marvel characters like Daredevil and She-Hulk, written critically acclaimed entries into the Star Wars canon and then has broken into the world of novels with original books Oracle Year and Anyone. His next novel is Star Wars: Light of the Jedi, which kicks off a brand new era in that universe. 

Charles Soule

(Exploring Star Wars and the Hero's Journey.)

In this wide-ranging interview, Soule talks about the differences between writing comics and novels, the process he takes for both, and the difficulty of quitting the day job to write full time.

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If you love to write and have a story you want to tell, the only thing that can stand between you and the success you're seeking isn't craft, or a good agent, or enough Facebook friends and Twitter followers, but fear. Fear that you aren't good enough, or fear the market is too crowded, or fear no one wants to hear from you. Fortunately, you can't write while being in the flow and be afraid simultaneously. The question is whether you will write fearlessly.

Click to continue.

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A lot of people know you from the world of comics and the world of novels, and I'm wondering how your approach differs between the two.

The most fundamental difference is that when you're making a comic, you're part of a group of very talented creators who all contribute their own part to telling the story. So, I write a script but then the artists do an enormous amount of heavy lifting in terms of the storytelling, in terms of the way that the images are depicted, the way that the angles are chosen, all of those things. 

I don't put those things in my scripts most of the time. I try to create a script that has all of the dialogue and the emotional content and the pacing and the meat, but then everything else is up to the artist to do. And then beyond that, you have the colorist, the letterer, the editor, and so on. Yes, I write, I'm the writer and a lot of the ideas originate with me, but at least as many originate with all of those other groups.

For a novel, you're doing all of that yourself. You are describing the scene, doing all the dialogue, all the pacing, choosing all the angles, so to speak. You can zoom in or out in front of the detail work you want to focus on. You are completely controlling the reader's eye.

(How to write vivid descriptions.)

Obviously novels are longer, too. I can get through a script in a day or two and a novel takes me eight to 12 months, right? It's just a different set of muscles. It's all storytelling, that stays true through both, but the actual technique is pretty different.

Can you walk me through your process?

For comics and novels, I have dedicated moleskin notebooks. A notebook will last me for about 25 issues of a comic, and will last me for a novel through revisions. It's very effective and easy to keep everything straight and have all the ideas in one place.

I use a modified version of bullet journaling, which is a process where you put a table of contents into the start of a notebook, and then you break it out. The book has sections in it.

At the beginning of my constructed notebook is themes. Why am I writing this book? And that's where I spend most of my time. In the beginning, I ask, "What is the point of this that's gonna sustain me through the long, long period of writing a book?" You have to be so focused on a novel, you have to think about it constantly, you have to live in your mind to a degree that is almost off-putting. I can't believe I've written three, and I'm working on my fourth, but it's addicting, too, especially when it's done and you feel good about it.

The second section is just pie-in-the-sky ideas. Concepts. I story-tell. This is where I know what the story is, I know the hook, I know the reason I'm exploring this, and let's see where it goes. And that's all really loose and rough stuff. For Anyone, I had the premise and I had loose ideas of the story before I even got the notebook and I was writing about a world as you could switch bodies, and what would happen in that world? What were the ways that that technology might be applied in society where it wasn't a special unique thing like in a horror movie or something, it was something that people used the same way they use their smart phones? 

And so I started thinking about doctors zipping around the world, in a new body to perform operations, surgeons getting to areas where they didn't have to fly there on a plane, they could just go there, and then that got me to tourists who would take vacations that way, and that got me to the type of people who would rent themselves out as vessels for people who are on vacation, so that they could experience their vacation in a young, healthy, strong body, and then that took me to people who are disabled and might really enjoy the opportunity to live in an abled body for a while. You see where I’m going. All of the different ways that the tech could work. So that's the second section.

(10 best dystopian novels for writers.)

After that, you start getting into rough ideas about characters. That's usually the third bit. Who will we be experiencing this story through? After that I get into more structured outlining.

That’s the first version of the notebook. From there, I move to Scrivener. It's very intuitive, but basically it's like a digital version of the notebook. Building my Scrivener is always kind of a thrill, because I don't do it until I know the novel well enough to do it. I don't wanna waste my time.

From there, I’ll start writing loose, kind of crappy versions of chapters. When I’m at that point, I try to just go through until I have a first draft, making lots of notes for myself. The notebook comes back into play because a lot of times I'll outline chapters in the notebook before I go type them into the Scrivener. I love going to coffee shops and bars and things like that. It’s just a very pleasant way, when the weather's nice, to just go outside, or sit in a social place and just put it down with a pencil.

That's how I do it. There's a lot of value in taking multiple passes on things because you don't always have all your good ideas at once. All of those versions are opportunities to iterate the ideas that I had the first time around and generally speaking, the more iterations the better.

What's the last step for you before you send it to your agents or any other readers or a publisher?

I read the manuscript again, usually with a hard copy, and I make a bunch of notes on it and then I run those notes.

I'll do that probably twice until I feel like I have gotten out all of the ideas that I feel like are worth doing at that point. Then I have very trusted readers who read all of my stuff first. That usually takes a week or two if I'm lucky. That gives me time to just not think about the novel for a while or let my subconscious think about it, but there's no real ritual other than feeling like I've done about as much as I feel comfortable doing in this draft and then it's time for some other eyeballs. 

I'll do a pass based on their notes. And then my agent, and then I'll do a pass based on that. And then to the editor. And then I get those notes. Sometimes I have other readers who will help at that point, too. There are readers I use for first impressions or readers who I ask to read the second time for second impressions. There are readers who I sort of hold and reserve until that second-most edits round of manuscript exists, so that they can give me first impressions on the new cut. 

(The problem with sensitivity readers isn't what you think it is.)

I have like an ammunition belt of readers that I deploy. Some people do it for a living, and some people do it just because they’re friends of mine, some people do it as sensitivity readers or specialty readers within their fields or whatever, they're all awesome and I couldn't do it without them.

With a novel, you have a definite end point, but when you're doing an on-going series, whether that's Poe Dameron or Star Wars or Daredevil, how far in advance are you looking forward as you're working on that?

It depends. I haven't had a true open-ended ongoing, series probably since Daredevil. And part of that is that I've shifted away from superhero comics to Star Wars comics and then my new creator-owned book. 

With creator-owned books, I treat them in a very novelistic fashion, and they all have a beginning, middle, and end. Whether it’s Letter 44, or Curse Words or even the new one I'm working on now, Undiscovered Country. There's a point and a goal, whereas if you're on Daredevil or Captain America, you're just sort of writing until your time is done, generally speaking.

With those, you probably have 20-25 issues in your head, the places you think the story is gonna go. And then you write, and if the story is received well, you get there, and if it is, you know by the time you're at that point if it's gonna continue. Before you get to that point, it's not like you get to 25 and you're like, "Oh no, I don't have any other ideas." You have realized that you're most likely gonna continue and you're still thinking of ideas for almost what you might call Season 2.

The Star Wars flagship is a little different in that it's open-ended, but even then it's still much more locked down than a run of Batman or something. For the Darth Vader book I did, I knew that was going to be a 25-issue run from the beginning. The Rise of Kylo Ren is a four-issue book that is designed to tell one very specific story within a pretty tight page count. And so from the outline that was very, very tightly outlined to make sure that I could tell everything that I wanted to, and that it would all land.

Do you still work a day job?

I do not. I was an attorney when I was getting into comics writing and novel writing. I started that in 2000, and then for over 15 years. I think I formally stopped at the end of 2016, beginning of 2017. I had gone from working at a big firm in Midtown Manhattan to a smaller firm, and then opening my own practice, which I did for quite a while, focused on immigration law. Which was great and I loved it, I loved helping people, and I love doing such a fulfilling job, especially something that I started myself and maintained and had grown a client base for. 

But what I always really wanted was to be a creative person for my living, and so when writing really started to take off and was taking much more of my time, it became clear to me that I couldn't responsibly do both because I was putting so much time into writing, that it was clear that the amount of effort required to stay up to speed on the law, particularly immigration law which changes constantly, was gonna be prohibitive. 

One of them had to go and I took the leap over to writing and I have no regrets. I'm glad I did it. My days now are filled with storytelling, which is what I've always wanted.

What would you tell people who are in that position, that want to make that leap but are still in that slog, where they're doing both? Which is a place I think where most writers probably are.

It's true. I know even writers who are really good at the marketing game, and on the outside appear as independent mega successful writers, many of them still have day jobs, because it's just a tricky gig to maintain.

I would say first of all, there's no shame in it. I did it for a really long time. I think that's the first thing: Know that it's okay to be doing two things at the same time, and it's okay to be doing two things at the same time for your whole life. There’s a writer with a lot of great stories that I liked telling stories about, a mystery writer. He had a job at the post office for his whole career, and he would just wake up in the morning at five, and write for two hours and then he would go to the post office, and he would just do that every single day for his whole career and that's great. You don't have to shift away.

But if you do wanna shift away I think you have to be willing to pursue a very commercial career. There are costs associated going for the most commercial type of writing possible, because there's not as much freedom. I can't put Darth Vader in a tutu or something like that, it just wouldn't work. Not that I would, but it's just not part of the franchise. You get all the benefits of writing stories about the most beloved characters in the world. But there's also a certain level of restriction to it, which again, is fine.

You have to brace yourself for that and know that there's a ladder to climb in that respect, too. That if you wanna be able to do writing exclusively you have to either have ideas that are incredibly successful, that are yours and original, or you work on other people's characters in a way that's high level enough that people will pay you a lot of money to do it. 

(21 authors share one piece of advice for writers.)

Or you accept that you will be a starving artist, which is also totally fine. Anyone, within reason, can adjust their life to, especially with the internet and things like that, to get by on not as much. And I say that from a position of luck and privilege, and I know that it's incredibly difficult, so I hope that's not taken a wrong way, but if... having a life of only writing or creating is your goal and you wanna put that ahead of every other thing in your life, whether that's comfort or other things, it can be done, you just have to make a bunch of really harsh decisions about it. 

I don't wanna say it's easy. None of those things are easy, and you need a lot of luck and skill, and people helping you, and all of that, but it's just really about wanting it enough to make all the choices, and spend all the time to get there. That's how it was for me.

Charles Soule’s Anyone is out now from Harper Perennial and his next book, Star Wars: Light of the Jedi comes out in early 2021. In the meantime, you can read his work on the flagship Star Wars title from Marvel comics.

Samantha Downing: Writing for Publication

In this post, Downing shares how the process of writing her second novel (He Started It) differed from her first (My Lovely Wife), her one piece of advice for writers, and more!

Samantha Downing is the USA Today and Sunday Times bestselling author of My Lovely Wife, which has been nominated for an Edgar award. Her next book, He Started It, was recently released. She currently lives and works in New Orleans. Learn more at www.samanthadowning.com.

Samantha Downing

(Breaking In: An Interview With Such a Fun Age Author Kiley Reid.)

In this post, Downing shares how the process of writing her second novel (He Started It) differed from her first (My Lovely Wife), her one piece of advice for writers, and more!

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Dive into the world of writing and learn all 12 steps needed to complete a first draft. In this writing workshop you will tackle the steps to writing a book, learn effective writing techniques along the way, and of course, begin writing your first draft.

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Name: Samantha Downing
Literary agent: Barbara Poelle at Irene Goodman Literary Agency
Book title: He Started It
Publisher: Berkley/PRH
Release date: July 21, 2020
Genre: Psychological Thriller
Previous title: My Lovely Wife

Elevator pitch for the book: Three siblings, and their spouses, have to go on a road trip to secure an inheritance from their grandfather. Along the way, they have to navigate through old grudges, rivalries, and buried family secrets.

What prompted you to write this book?

I love road trips—not only in real life, but in fiction. Road trips open up so many possibilities. Plus the idea of being confined in a car with the same people for long periods of time…it's a thriller waiting to happen!

How long did it take to go from idea to publication?

I wrote the first draft of this book in three months and then went through about six months of revisions with my editor. At that point, we were about nine months from publication. It still had to go through copyedits, sending out advance copies, early reviews…but the writing part was done.

The original story never changed, though some details and storylines did. As any writer knows, books are a long process no matter how many you've written!

Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?

This is my second book and it was a much different process than my first. My Lovely Wife was written before I had an agent, much less a book contract, so I had a lot more time to write and revise it. For the second book, I had a deadline and a schedule to keep. 

(6 things writing a second novel taught me.)

Transitioning from writing as a hobby to writing for publication has been a journey! Mostly it's been a change in my mental process and how I think about it.

Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?

No surprises other than having a shorter amount of time to write it!

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

I love reading a book that is so engaging I can't put it down, and I have to know what happens next. This is the kind of book I try to write, and I hope this is the kind of experience I can give a reader.

If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?

Keep writing! Concentrate on your craft, and do it because you love it.